Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Strange Grace of God

During the Advent cycles in the Common Lectionary there is inevitably the gospel reading on the fourth Sunday which focuses on the annunciation to Mary.  

Frankly, there is a tendency among the mainline Protestant churches to skim over the familiar story of the annunciation of the angel to Mary that she will be the mother of expected Messiah.  The tendency is to pass over lightly because many are not sure of the meaning.  We don’t understand the presence of an angel, and the annunication of a virgin conception.  

Ignoring the story is related to long standing prejudice about the Church of Rome, and misunderstanding of the scriptures along with the liturgical and devotional practices that have Mary as a central theme.  In other words, giving some place for Mary in the narrative of the faith is something that mainline Protestants do not do, even though Blessed Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation,  referred to her as Theotokus, the God-Bringer.  Mary is not considered important to the life of faith within the Reformation churches, and often she is relegated to being a minor player in the drama of the coming of the Christ. 

The narrative of the annunciation to Mary is about strange grace of God, defined as an unsolicited, unmerited gift from God.  For sake of the salvation of world, God comes into our midst as a human being - no burning bush, no thunder and lightning, no pillar of fire  -  he comes to an obscure peasant woman in form of a helpless infant.

Mary’s only question is “How can this be?” which comes out of her circumstances as an unmarried virgin.  Her response is immediate, enthusiastic, and joyful, for she understood that this was God’s fulfillment of his promises to Israel.  Mary represents the faithful remnant who depended upon God alone for their well-being.

How do we respond today to this annunciation? What if a messenger of God came to one among those who read this commentary to announce Jesus’ coming?  I would anticipate various responses of fear, skeptism, rejection, even derision from the many who would hear that message.  Where, then, do we find the faith to respond as Mary “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word?”

We live in fearful times. The world tearing itself apart in more destructive and desperate ways than ever recorded in history.  Natural disasters have increased markedly just in the past decade, and  the nations of the world seem less and less able to provide effective response.  There is a significant increase in number of poor and oppressed as economies collapse and wanton greed overcomes human compassion.  We see the continued horrors of genocide as sectarian concerns for power overwhelm those innocents who are caught up in the violence.

We live in cynical times.  The annunciation to Mary is not taken seriously, which testifies to the thoughts of many that God’s presence in history is not to be taken seriously.  God’s grace is dismissed because it is strange and difficult to understand, because it sounds like something for nothing, and that’s not possible, so there must be “a hidden hook.”  We don’t want God’s grace, but we do want God to come and fix everything so we do not have to be responsible to proclaim the message of “peace on earth, good will to all.”

The strange grace of God requires first that we believe as Mary, that the messenger brings the message of God’s call to be the mother of the Savior.  Second, that our response to the message is like Mary’s, immediate, enthusiastic, and joyful, for it is also the message of what God will do in the future when Christ returns, and and we are gathered as saints in the Kingdom of God.

The strange grace of God.  This is the message we are to proclaim in the midst of the world.  Many will not understand and accept the message.  However, some will hear and respond. Our task is to live out our baptim, responding to the gift of God’s strange grace with joy in the knowledge that as God once came into our midst in a strange way, to a peasant woman, as a helpless infant, and in the poorest of circumstances.

The strange grace of God which was given to Mary is given to us in Christ.  As we wait for Christ’s coming again, so it is possible for Protestant Christians to remember and celebrate Mary with the ancient prayer: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.”

Richard Hammond Price, OCC 
© December 2011

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